Berlin Film Review: ‘Politics, Instruction Manual’

A full-access account of the meteoric rise of Spain's third-largest political party, Podemos, that also functions as a how-to guide for activists.

'Politics, Instruction Manual' Review: Berlin Film Festival

For once, the title does not mislead: With a bit of trimming down from its slightly baggy two hours, Fernando León de Aranoa’s documentary on the rise of left-wing Spanish political force Podemos could be the Ikea self-assembly kit for how to turn generalized resistance into a party with parliamentary clout. León de Aranoa is better known as a feature director, with titles like “Family,” “Mondays in the Sun,” and, most recently, Cannes Directors’ Fortnight film “A Perfect Day.” But he turns his hand to nonfiction with a feature director’s eye for narrative arc, and, with unfettered access to the film’s principals, makes an engrossingly well-edited and polished, if formally unambitious, doc that presents a you-are-there immediacy in witnessing the birth of a political movement. Cineastes may long for a less straight-on, talking-heads-reliant movie, but activists, idealists, and the politicians of the future will be so busy taking careful notes they’ll be unlikely to care.

The film tracks Podemos from the inside, over the year-and-a-half period from its first conference following its inception in 2014, up to the general election in December 2015. Accompanied by a rushing, percussive soundtrack provided by Antonio Sanchez (“Birdman”), it’s a journey that sometimes feels like the political equivalent of free-form jazz. More often, though, it has the exhilarating queasiness of that sequence in “The Wrong Trousers” in which Gromit, riding atop a speeding train, must continually throw tracks in front of him to keep from crashing.

Thanks to its documenting of recent history, “Instruction Manual” has an of-the-moment quality that banishes the stuffy, retrospective feel of most political docs. Two main personalities emerge: Pablo Iglesias, who, in the film’s opening salvo, becomes Podemos’ general secretary and de facto figurehead; and later, Iñigo Errejón, the movement’s political secretary and campaign strategist. Yet, the docu doesn’t focus on merely a leadership struggle, but on crunch time for decisions governing the very structure and nature of the party. Podemos was formed by a loose coalition of political scientists, university philosophy professors and grass-roots activists united in ideological opposition to the existing Spanish regime. But as with any nascent political movement forged in the heat of opposition, it quickly emerges that the key issue is (and possibly will always be) just how much of their oppositional fervor members are willing to sacrifice to win. You can’t change the game you despise unless you play it.

The telegenic Errejón emerges as the most articulate and astute commentator on this battle between compromise and idealism. In his early 30s, he looks almost absurdly youthful at times, and he delivers his brand of radical left-wing pragmatism in dizzying, rapid-fire Spanish (the subtitles race to keep up) that is nakedly illuminating, yet also somehow sobering. Inspiring though it is to see a group of people with only theoretical political experience put their ideals to a real-world test, the picture León de Aranoa builds is also a daunting one: Podemos’ rise was spectacular and meteoric, but it came at the cost of a near-superhuman expenditure of energy and commitment, and not all the bonds of friendship and solidarity survived the crucible.

The film ends with uplift: Podemos’ victory at the December 2015 general election at which it became the third largest party in Spain — an incredible feat, considering it didn’t exist 20 months prior. But what goes around comes around, and just sure as victories follow defeats, defeats follow victories. (Indeed there already have been setbacks: in the 2016 election, Podemos, now among an alliance of left-wing parties, failed to make its predicted gains).

Nonetheless, León de Aranoa’s rapid-fire doc is true to the bootstraps, DIY nature of the movement’s original ethos: Podemos means “we can” in Spanish, but this “Instruction Manual” is not about sloganeering or generalized messages of hope. It’s about a practical road map on which are clearly marked the pitfalls and potholes on the path to parliamentary power. It’s motivating precisely because it doesn’t voice the familiar rhetoric of “we can,” but lives in the irreducible fact that “we did.”

Berlin Film Review: ‘Politics, Instruction Manual’

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 17, 2017. Running time: 120 MIN. (Original title: “Política, manual de instrucciones”).

  • Production: (Documentary, Spain) A Betta Pictures (in Spain) presentation of a Mediapro and Reposada production. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York). Producers: Jaume Roures, Fernando León de Aranoa.
  • Crew: Director/writer: Fernando León de Aranoa. Camera (color): Jordi Abusada. Editor: Yago Muñiz.
  • With: Pablo Iglesias, Iñigo Errejón. (Spanish dialogue)